Blind Willie Johnson
The only known photograph of Johnson (cropped)
Also known as Blind Willie, Blind Texas Marlin, The Blind Pilgrim
Born January 25, 1897
Independence, Texas, United States
Died September 18, 1945 (aged 48)
Genres Gospel, gospel blues
Occupation(s) Musician, preacher
Instruments Guitar, vocals
Blind Willie Johnson (January 25, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American gospel blues singer-guitarist and evangelist. His landmark recordings completed between 1927 and 1930 -- 30 songs in total -- display a combination of powerful "chest voice" singing, slide guitar skills, and originality that has influenced later generations of musicians. Even though Johnson's records sold well, as a street performer and preacher, he had little wealth or recognition in his lifetime. His life was poorly documented and left to speculation; however, overtime music historians such as Samuel Charters have uncovered more about Johnson and his five recording sessions.
Johnson's music experienced a revival which began in the 1960s, in large due to the effort by blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. Overtime, Johnson's work has become more commercially accessible through compilation albums such as Blind Willie Johnson 1927-1930 and The Complete Blind Willie Johnson, both efforts spearheaded by Charters. As a result, Johnson is credited as one of the most influential practitioners of the blues and his slide guitar playing, particularly on his widely-covered hymn "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", is also highly praised. Other recordings by Johnson that have been interpreted on several different occasions include "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", and "John the Revelator".
1.1 Early life and career
1.2 Recording sessions (1927-1930)
1.3 Later life and death
2 Musical style
Early life and career
Johnson was born on January 25, 1897 in Independence, Texas, a small town twelve miles northeast of Brenham, to sharecropper George Johnson (also identified as Willie Johnson Sr.) and his wife Mary Fields, who died in 1901. Around 1900, his family, which according to blues historian Steven Calt included at least one younger brother named Carl, moved to the agriculturally-rich community of Marlin where Johnson spent most of his childhood. There, the Johnson family attended church -- most likely the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church -- every Sunday, a practice which had a lasting impact on Johnson and fueled his desire to be ordained as a Baptist minister. When Johnson was five years-old, his father bestowed upon him his first instrument: a cigar box guitar.
Johnson was not born blind, though he was impaired with the disability at an early age. Although it is uncertain how he lost his sight, it is generally agreed upon by most biographers of Johnson that he was blinded by his step-mother when he was seven years-old, a claim that was first made by Johnson's purported widow Angeline Johnson. In her recollection, Willie Johnson's father had violently confronted his step-mother about her infidelity, and during the argument she splashed Johnson with a caustic solution of lye water, permanently blinding him. Other theories have also been developed to explain Johnson's visual impairment, including him wearing the wrong spectacles, seeing a partial solar eclipse that was observable over Texas in 1905, or a combination of the two conjectures.
Little else seems to be known about Johnson's childhood, but at some point he met another blind musician named Madkin Butler, who had a powerful singing and preaching style that influenced Johnson's own vocal delivery and repertoire. A blind minister named Adam Booker was interviewed by blues historian Samuel Charters in the 1950s, recalling Johnson would perform secular songs on street corners while visiting his father in Hearne with a tin cup tied to the neck of his Stella guitar to collect money. Occasionally, Johnson would play on the same street as Blind Lemon Jefferson, but the extent of the two songsters' involvement with each other is unknown. In 1926 or early 1927, Johnson established an unregistered marriage with Willie B. Harris, who occasionally sang on the street with him and at benefits for the Marlin Church of God in Christ with Johnson accompanied on piano. From the relationship, Johnson had a daughter named Sam Faye Johnson Kelly in 1931.
Recording sessions (1927-1930)
On December 3, 1927, Johnson was assembled along with Billiken Johnson and Coley Jones at a temporary studio which talent scout Frank Buckley Walker had set up in the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas to record for Columbia Records. In the ensuing session, Johnson played six selections, 13 takes in total, and was accompanied by Willie B. Harris on his first recording, "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole". Among the other songs Johnson recorded in Dallas were "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine", "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time", "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", and "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down". He was compensated with $50 per "usable" side -- a substantial payroll for the period -- and a bonus to sign away his royalty rights from sales of the records.
The first songs to be released were "I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole" and "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" on Columbia's popular 14000 Race series. Johnson's debut became a substantial success as 9,400 copies were pressed, more than one of Columbia's most established stars Bessie Smith's latest release at the time, and an additional pressing of 6,000 copies followed. His fifth recorded song, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", the eventual B-side to Johnson's second release, best exemplifies his unique guitar playing in regular tuning in Open D for slide. For the session, Johnson substituted a knife or penknife for the bottleneck and according to Harris he played with a thumb-pick. His melancholy, indescribable humming of the guitar part creates the impression of "unison moaning", a style of singing hymns that is common in southern African American church choirs. In 1928, blues critic Edward Abbe Niles praised Johnson in his column for The Bookman, emphasizing his "violent, tortured, and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing".
Johnson, accompanied by Harris, returned to Dallas on December 5, 1928 to record "I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge", "Jesus Is Coming Soon", "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying", and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning". Two unreleased and untitled tracks were also recorded by Johnson under the pseudonym Blind Texas Marlin, but the master tapes of the session have never been recovered. Another year had passed before Johnson recorded again on December 10 and 11, 1929, his longest sessions of his career. He completed ten sides on 16 takes at Werlein's Music Store in New Orleans, also recording some duets with an unknown female singer who is thought to have been a member of Reverend J.M. Gates's congregation. In between sessions, blind street performer Dave Ross reported seeing Johnson performed in front of the Custom House on Canal Street, and, in legend, was arrested for allegedly attempting to incite a riot with his impassioned rendition of "If I Had My Way I'd Tear the Building Down".
For his fourth and final recording session, Johnson journeyed to Atlanta with Harris returning to provide vocal harmonies. Ten selections were completed on April 20, 1930 and "Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right" paired with "Go with Me to That Land" were chosen as the first single released from the session. However, the Great Depression had wiped out much of Johnson's audience, consequently limiting pressings to only 800 copies. Some of his songs were re-released by Vocalion Records in 1932; however, Johnson never recorded again.
Later life and death
Johnson re-married to Angeline Johnson in the early 1930s, but, like with Harris, it is unlikely that the union was officially registered. Throughout the Great Depression and the 1940s, he earned a meager wage performing in several cities and towns in Texas, including Beaumont. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Reverend W. J. Johnson—undoubtedly Blind Willie—operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street, in Beaumont. In 1945, his home was destroyed by a fire, but, with nowhere else to go, Johnson continued to live in the ruins of his house where he was exposed to the humidity. He contracted malarial fever, but no hospital would admit Johnson because of his visual impairment. Over the course of the year, his condition steadily worsened until Johnson died on September 18, 1945. His death certificate also reported syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.
According to his death certificate, he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery, in Beaumont. The location of that cemetery had been forgotten until it was rediscovered in 2009. His grave site remains unknown, but the researchers who identified the cemetery erected a monument there in his honor in 2010.
"Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning"
Traditional blues song recorded in 1928 by Johnson and his first wife
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Johnson is considered one of the masters of blues, particular of the gospel blues style. Like his contemporary Blind Lemon Jefferson, Johnson channeled the expressiveness of the blues into his religious messages derived from hymn books. Sam Charters in the liner notes to the compilation album The Complete Blind Willie Johnson wrote Johnson, in fact, was not a bluesman in the traditional sense, "but here still is so much similarity between his relentless guitar rhythms and his harsh, insistent voice, and the same fierce intensities of the blues singers, that they become images of each other, seen in the mirror of the society that produced them".
An important aspect of Johnson's recordings, was his mastering of the bottleneck guitar technique, which was immediately influential on Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf. He punctuated his selections with tonal control and sense of timing, often using the guitar as a part of Johnson's harmonic phrasing, particularly on "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground". By most accounts, including one by reputable blues guitarist Blind Willie McTell, Johnson utilized a knife as a slide, but other claims by Harris and bluesman Thom Shaw also state he used a thumb-pick or brass ring on his recordings. Music historian Steve Halt described Johnson's style: "opposed to other bottleneck artists he varies the speed of his vibrato drastically, often speeding up as he slides into a note. He is also one of the few bottleneck artists with the ability to consistently sound 3 or 4 discreet melody notes upon striking a string once, a skill that reflects uncanny left-handed strength, accuracy and agility".
Johnson's sang in a harsh and gravely bass voice that was meant to be powerful enough to be channeled by passerbys on the streets. His vocal interplay was described by blues writer Mark Makin as "fierce" and "not unlike the 'Hell and Damnation' of a Baptist preacher such as a fired-up Reverend A. W. Nix". On some instances in his recordings, Johnson also delivered in his natural tenor voice. The only known influence on Johnson's singing style is blind musician Madkin Butler, who, like Johnson, sang his religious message on the streets of Texas cities.
Several of Johnson's songs have been interpreted by other musicians, including "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed", "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine", "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground", "John the Revelator", "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond", "Motherless Children" and "Soul of a Man".
"Dark Was the Night" is one of the music tracks on the Voyager Golden Record, copies of which were placed on both the unmanned Voyager Project space probes in 1977. It is the penultimate track, preceding the Cavatina from Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 130: the blind musician and the deaf, side by side. The astronomer Timothy Ferris, who worked with Carl Sagan in selecting the tracks, said,
Johnson's song concerns a situation he faced many times, nightfall with no place to sleep. Since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight.
“Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” was used on the Oscar-nominated soundtrack to Pier Paolo Pasolini's classic film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, in scenes where Judas Iscariot laments betraying Christ and a cripple asks to be healed. Ry Cooder's slide guitar on the title song and soundtrack music of the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas (1984) is based on "Dark Was the Night".
"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was played in the TV series The West Wing in season 5, episode 13, "The Warfare of Genghis Khan".
"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was also featured throughout the movie Walk The Line, which depicted the life of famed country singer Johnny Cash.
"It's Nobody's Fault but Mine" was played in the TV series The Walking Dead, in season 5, episode 4, "Slabtown."